Amid widespread condemnation of the Government postponing its decision on airport expansion, Heathrow’s main tenant plans to launch nine new routes next year. Yet none of BA’s planned flights from its hub serves the “emerging economies” of Brazil, Russia, India or China - calling into question some of the arguments for expansion. Most of the new routes are to Mediterranean sun-spots, and one is to Legoland in Denmark.
The Government has been lambasted as “pathetic” for failing to rule on runway capacity in the South East. Five months after the Davies Commission unequivocally backed a third runway at Heathrow, the Government said that two other schemes - an extended northern runway at Heathrow, or a second runway at Gatwick - are still on the table.
The Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, told Radio 4’s Today programme that even after the three-year, £20m Airports Commission study, more environmental research was needed: “By the summer of next year we will be in a position to have done the extra work.
But he refused to commit on timing, saying only: “I hope that we will be able to make a firm recommendation to the Cabinet sub-committee next summer.”
Mr McLoughlin’s comments provoked a furious response across the political and business spectrum.
The Labour MP who chairs the Transport Select Committee, Louise Ellman, said: “The Government should have used the time since the Airports Commission's report to conduct the necessary environmental assessment rather than waiting until now to announce that it is going to start this work.”
Gavin Hayes, Director of the pro-expansion pressure group Let Britain Fly, said: “This was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to secure Britain's long-term prosperity and the government has utterly bottled it. It's pathetic.”
David Cameron has been accused of postponing a decision because of one man: Zak Goldsmith, MP for Richmond Park and Tory candidate for the London Mayoral election in May. Mr Goldsmith has vowed to resign if Heathrow was chosen, triggering an unwelcome by-election and throwing the Mayoral race into chaos.
Jim McAuslan, General Secretary of the pilots’ union, BALPA, said: “It appears that the politics of the South East continues to paralyse the final decision making.”
The biggest airline group at Heathrow is IAG, which owns British Airways, Iberia and Aer Lingus. IAG’s chief executive, Willie Walsh, said: “To further delay a decision shows what we have repeatedly said - that party politics takes precedence over what is best for the economy.”
But comments Mr Walsh made at an investment event last month run counter to the widely held view that slot constraints at Heathrow jeopardise British business.
IAG owns more than half the take-off and landing slots at Heathrow. The chief executive told analysts at the IAG Capital Markets Day: “We still have capacity within the slot portfolio that we have with British Airways following the acquisition of BMI to fulfil all of our short- and medium-term expansion plans.”
The company plans gradually to increase the proportion of slots used for long-haul flights, which are more profitable than European links. But its new routes for 2016 suggest it is in no particular hurry.
This week British Airways launched a link from Heathrow to Salzburg in Austria, serving the ski market. Nine more new BA routes are planned from Europe’s most crowded airport, starting next summer. One is a restored domestic link to Inverness. A second is a daily flight to San Jose in California, serving “Silicon Valley”.
But BA’s remaining seven new destinations from Heathrow are to holiday destinations such as Chania in Crete, the Spanish island of Menorca and Billund in Denmark - adjacent to the original Legoland theme park - rather than to China.
Willie Walsh told investors last month: “That may disappoint some people that we're not growing our presence into emerging markets.” He said the problem with the People’s Republic was not slots, but British red tape: “For China really to work for us in a BA context, we need further change in the visa regime with the UK.”
In an upbeat presentation, Mr Walsh also surprised his audience by telling them: “We’re here to show you the fucking money.”
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